Before Noah (6-with Down syndrome), I was kind of cocky when it came to home education and my children. I’d gone to all the conventions, heard all the speakers, seen all the programs and curricula and owned most of it (the curricula, that is). I knew exactly what each child needed to accomplish for the year to keep them on grade level with their peers.
Did I mention that was before Noah?
Educating a child with Down syndrome cured me of that particular cockiness. He was 5 at the beginning of last school year, so that meant that we technically started Kindergarten. Taking one look at the skill lists for typical kindergarteners pretty much nixed our Kindergarten idea, especially since I was hearing several stories about kindergarteners with Down syndrome staying back for a second year of kindergarten in the public schools – sounded pretty standard.
Then again, I’ll never forget the young man with Down syndrome I saw sitting in the middle of an aisle at Hobby Lobby. He looked to be about 18 or so, and he was sitting there playing with and talking to two plastic dinosaurs in a way I would have expected from a 3 year old.
Stop right there. I have NO, absolutely NO issues with a person with a cognitive delay playing in any way that makes them happy. It’s just when I think of Noah’s future, I think he will have more options and opportunities to participate in the community around him if at some level he can be age-appropriate. I think some people with Down syndrome are capable of that, and perhaps some are not. I don’t know where Noah will fall. I can tell you that I have visited with both high-functioning and low-functioning adults with Down syndrome, and regardless of their functioning level, most of them have indeed exhibited reasonably age-appropriate behavior.
Here is where that desperation that comes with being a parent of a child with special needs comes in. I don’t know what Noah’s future holds, but I want to know that I have done everything “right” in equipping him to do the very most he can do. I don’t want to look back and wish I did more. I suppose that’s not really a special needs parent thing – that’s a desperation most parents feel whether their child has special needs or not. I just don’t freak out about it as much with my other kids as I do with Noah.
So, although one part of me says to just let Noah go through curricula and skills at his own pace and not worry about age-appropriateness, the other part of me is concerned about social skills and says he simply cannot stay in kindergarten curricula throughout his entire grade school years, whether that’s where he is cognitively or not. (And I don’t know where he will be cognitively.)
So I did something very counterintuitive to most homeschoolers. I emailed a public school educator/administrator and said “HELP!!!!” I wound up talking to a man high up in the Texas public schools who has had much experience, personal and professional, with special needs education. I threw my concerns at his feet, and this is what (among other things) he told me that has given me so much direction:
The best way to socially integrate and educate our children with special needs like the ones presented by Down syndrome is keep them on age level content wise, but skill level ability wise.
What does that look like?
In Texas, plants and animals are covered in first grade. Typical children learn about life cycles of animals like frogs and butterflies and demonstrate understanding by describing or drawing the life cycle of frogs and butterflies. Your child with an intellectual disability should also learn about the life cycle of frogs and butterflies, but he may demonstrate understanding by doing something like matching a picture of a caterpillar to a picture of a butterfly and a picture of a tadpole to a picture of a frog.
That means I won’t be keeping Noah in certain subject matter for an indefinite period of time until he masters the depth of the content that his peers will, but he will be exposed to the same subject matter tailored to his understanding.
And, just for the record, I am still planning on giving Noah a second year of kindergarten in order to lay the foundation for the rest of his education. Seeing how Bella (5) starts kindergarten work this year, he’ll have good company.
A comment on enlisting the help of public educators – even if we take on the huge task of homeschooling, we really don’t have to re-invent the wheel. The public schools have so much experience and research behind what they do, and most public educators have huge hearts, especially for children with special needs. If you happen across one who is antagonistic about home education, don’t hesitate to smile and thank them for their input and then go your own way; but in my experience they are much more likely to have some really good experience-based ideas that can help you over whatever hurdle you are encountering, whether they are home-school supporters or not.